Nora Knox

Sustainability is not a one-time treatment or product. Instead, green building is a process that applies to buildings, their sites, their interiors, their operations, and the communities in which they are situated. The process of green building flows throughout the entire life-cycle of a project, beginning at the inception of a project idea and continuing seamlessly until the project reaches the end of its life and its parts are recycled or reused. 

In our guide, An Introduction to LEED and Green Building, the term green building encompasses planning, design, construction, operations, and ultimately end-of-life recycling or renewal of structures. Green building pursues solutions that represent a healthy and dynamic balance between environmental, social, and economic benefits. 

Sustainability and “green,” often used interchangeably, are about more than just reducing environmental impacts. Sustainability means creating places that are environmentally responsible, healthful, just, equitable, and profitable. Greening the built environment means looking holistically at natural, human, and economic systems and finding solutions that support quality of life for all. 

Triple bottom line is also often used to refer to the concept of sustainability. The term was coined by John Elkington, cofounder of the business consultancy SustainAbility, in his 1998 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. First applied to socially responsible business, the term can characterize all kinds of projects in the built environment. The triple bottom line concept incorporates a long-term view for assessing potential effects and best practices for three kinds of resources:

  • People (social capital). All the costs and benefits to the people who design, construct, live in, work in, and constitute the local community and are influenced, directly or indirectly, by a project 
  • Planet (natural capital). All the costs and benefits of a project on the natural environment, locally and globally 
  • Profit (economic capital). All the economic costs and benefits of a project for all the stakeholders (not just the project owner)

The goal of the triple bottom line, in terms of the built environment, is to ensure that buildings and communities create value for all stakeholders, not just a restricted few. For example, an energy-efficient building that saves the owners money but makes the occupants sick is not sustainable, nor is a material that has a small carbon footprint but was made in a sweatshop, nor is an eco-resort that displaces threatened species or local people. 

A commitment to the triple bottom line means a commitment to look beyond the status quo. It requires consideration of whole communities and whole systems, both at home and around the world. Research is needed to determine the impacts of a given project and find new solutions that are truly sustainable. New tools and processes are required to help projects arrive at integrative, synergistic, sustainable solutions. 

The triple bottom line requires a shift in perspective about both the costs and the benefits of our decisions. The term externalities is used by economists to describe costs or benefits incurred by parties who are not part of a transaction. For example, the purchase price of a car does not account for the wear and tear it will have on public roads or the pollution it will put into the environment. To shift the valuation process to account for such negative externalities, building professionals require new metrics. The green building process and rating systems have begun to encourage quantification of externalities. The focus has been first on environmental metrics, but the list is expanding to include indicators of social justice and public health. 

Making buildings more healthful, more comfortable, and more conducive to productivity for their occupants has special significance in light of studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found that people in the United States spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors. Occupants of green buildings are typically exposed to far lower levels of indoor pollutants and have significantly greater satisfaction with air quality and lighting than occupants of conventional buildings. Research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University shows that these benefits can translate into a 2% to 16% increase in workers’ and students’ productivity. Even small increases in productivity can dramatically increase the value of a building

Download our guide, An Introduction to LEED and Green Building, to learn more